Saturday, 21 July 2012

Northeast Argentina and why we didn't go to Paraguay

So it turned out that the parade we watched on the morning of July 9 (see previous blog post) was the extent of Independence Day celebrations in Resistencia, so-named for it's stalwart resistance against numerous indigenous uprisings during the 19th century. There were no fireworks or any sort of organized program in the main plaza later in the day. When we set out in search of dinner there were lots of people milling about, including many families with children, so I was sure there would be something going on for the holiday. Nope.

Cowboys in the 9 de Julio (Argentine Independence Day) Parade.
Note the backhoe entering the frame at the top - several construction vehicles were featured in the parade.

Other participants in the parade.

[Interesting fact about Resistencia: there are more than 500 sculptures, monuments and other works of art scattered throughout the city's streets. Most are the relics of entries in the Bienniel International Sculptures Competition organized by the city. There is even a sculpture depicting a stray dog that won over the hearts of the residents. And of course there were lots of busts. And nudes. With busts.]

Another interesting fact about Resistencia: garbage pickup is done by horse and cart!

Finding a place to eat dinner was unreasonably challenging considering the proximity of our hotel to the plaza and thus, the center of town. There were a few pricey looking venues right off the square but we decided to try the surrounding streets to find something a bit more economical. To our amazement, we wandered for several blocks and did not encounter one restaurant. Even the pedestrian district (a series of streets closed to vehicular traffic, lined with stores) was oddly devoid of eateries despite being a hub of activity. There was one fast-food looking place that we passed by in search of a healthier alternative but we eventually returned to it after coming up empty-handed. And so began our first experience with the Argentinian "pay-by-weight" style of fast food dining. Luckily, we had a kind server who enlightened us as to how the per-kilo buffet worked and we got started loading up our plates. The food wasn't bad - not just french fries and burgers but a wide assortment of dishes including chicken breasts in a sweet sauce, roasted meats, pastas, empanadas, salads, cooked veggies, and desserts. Things like empanadas are purchased a la carte but nearly everything else goes onto a plate that gets weighed at the till and you pay the per kilo price. Doesn't matter if you have a plate full of meat or pasta. Same deal. And it was quite economical. I was a little disappointed that all the food was rather cold and wondered why they didn't have heated trays for the buffet. It was only after I'd pretty much finished my meal that I noticed other people heating up their plates in microwaves just past the cashiers. Oops.

Day 2 in Resistencia began with some shopping. Chris finally found a new pair of jeans to buy - he needed a replacement pair of pants due to his shrinking waistline which rendered the pants that were just slightly too big when we left way too big and at risk of dropping ankleward if not cinched up effectively. Apparently he's eating better (i.e. more healthily) during our travels than at home though I find this hard to believe because I have firsthand knowledge of just how many chocolate bars that boy consumes (~1 per day). I guess maybe it's all the walking we are doing as well. I haven't noticed any change in my clothing sizes but I do feel stronger and I'm sure in better condition than when I spent 8 hours a day sitting at a desk! Ugh, the sedentary lifestyle. Chris also found a sweet pair of yellow sneakers and some undies to replace a pair of his that disappeared in Salta (yes, he too has fallen victim to the laundry gnomes of south america). All in all, an very successful shopping trip for him.

One thing that really blew our minds when we were walking around was the rampant duplication of stores even within a very small area. Well, duplication is an understatement. I seriously counted no less than 5 of the exact same sportswear chain all within a two block radius (do blocks have radii? I've never understood that phrase but it doesn't stop me from using it). There were barely a handful of stores between them! And they all had identical stock. Pharmacies are equally redundant. Often there are two stores of the same chain a stones throw away from eachother and a competitor store kitty-corner. No idea why this might be. Resistencia also had an abundance of underwear/lingerie stores. So, sportswear, sexy-wear, and pharmacies are big business. I feel like there should be some sort of correlation there...

Another thing we've encountered consistently in the larger cities of northern Argentina are long lineups for ATMs. They are constant and you have no choice but to wait your turn once you're out of cash. It appears to be an even longer wait for actual face-time with a teller. People queue outside banks long before they open (at 8 am) and the waiting area, often several rows of chairs, is always packed. Evidently there is a serious shortage of banking options in Argentina (at least here in the north). The fact that the banks close at 1 pm might also be a contributing factor.... Also annoying is the relatively low maximum withdrawl amount (~$230 CDN) and outrageously high fee (more than $4) for using the machine. But, as will be recounted later in this blog post, these inconveniences were merely a prelude to the "money trouble" we would have in Argentina.

Since Chris had managed to find replacement pants and we were still toting around some souvenir type things, we decided we should send another box home to free up space in our packs. First step, find a box. This didn't prove as challenging as some of our former attempts to procure shipping containers. While waiting in line for an ATM I noticed we were standing in front of a stationary store and went in to ask if they had any empty paper boxes. Although the employee looked at me like I was crazy and his superior laughed when he asked him for a box on my behalf I managed to get one. I still don't understand what is so strange or humorous about boxes. And I google translated the word I've been using to make sure it doesn't have alternate slang meanings in Spanish.... Another unsolved mystery of our travel adventures.

We took the box back to our hotel and packed it with all the crafts we'd purchased from artisans since our last shipment home as well as items from our bags that we'd decided we weren't using enough (or didn't fit anymore). Then we hauled it down to the post office. As with all services in Argentina, there was a lineup so we took a number and waited our turn. But... as soon as we approached the clerk we were told it wasn't possible to send our parcel. This particular post office could only ship up to 2 kg internationally. We figured our box was 3 or 4 times that and it would have been too expensive to split it into 2 kg portions. The clerk shrugged when we asked if there was another way to send it in the city (we were thinking a private company like FedEx). Perplexed, we returned to our hotel room and I did some digging on the internet to find that only the post offices in the biggest cities are able to ship parcels >2 kg. I wasn't able to find an alternate company in Resistencia or nearby. So, we unpacked the box and resigned ourselves to having to carry the extra weight a little longer. During my internet searches I found a quote from a British expat that read, "Argentina - designed to be as difficult to live in as possible". Apt. (more examples to follow)

We found a much nicer restaurant for dinner on our second night in Resistencia - Coco's. With an extensive wine list and a good selection of menu items it was a big step up from the previous night's experience. In fact, we liked it so much that we decided we'd come back the next night for my birthday dinner. The devil you know...

My birthday began as a sunny but crisp morning in which we took care of a few errands and then tried to figure out how to get across the river to the neighboring city of Corrientes. Our guidebook mentioned shared taxis but we didn't find them in the location described. We decided to try for a bus instead but the bus stops didn't have signage with route markings. After waiting a bit and not seeing any buses marked "Corrientes" I tried to ask a lady who was also waiting for a bus. The moment I uttered the first few words (in Spanish) she waved me away spouting something that sounded like an apology. I think she just figured I was trying to speak English to her and panicked. After another moment she turned back to us and said "Corrientes?" and we said "Si. Donde vienen los buses?" (Yes. Where do the buses come?). She pointed back down the street so we thanked her and went hunting for another bus stop in that direction. We still couldn't see a stop marked for Corrientes-bound buses but while we stood on the curb and pondered hiring a taxi for AR$80 a bus pulled up with Chaco-Corrientes on the side so I asked the driver and we'd found our ride across the river (for only AR$3 each!).

Bridge across the Rio Parana linking Resistencia and Corrientes.

We arrived in Corrientes, comparable in size and feel to Resistencia, around midday just as it finally began to warm up. So strange having my birthday in "winter" rather than the heat of summer! We found a great restaurant where we enjoyed a yummy set menu lunch and I admired the unique glass-encased wine display in the center of the dining area. After lunch we wandered toward the riverfront, passing some interesting 3-dimensional murals depicting scenes of historical significance to the region. The river is massive and it reminded me a bit of the St. Lawrence in eastern Canada. We walked for a ways and then made our way back to the center to catch a bus returning to Resistencia. The day culminated with a lovely birthday dinner at Coco's, complete with a bottle of Reserve Saurus Malbec - one that would be quite pricey at home but was a pittance here in the land of its making. All in all, a good birthday abroad.

My birthday. Lunch in Corrientes, skyping with my birthdaymate Roz, strolling by the interesting murals in Corrientes en route to the waterfront.

Early the next morning we boarded a bus bound for Mercedes, a small city to the southeast of Resistencia that served as a stopover point for getting to the spectacular wetland region of Esteros del Ibera. This wetland, the second largest in the world, is home to an absolute bounty of bird and animal life including capybara (the world's largest rodent), howler monkeys, maned wolf, 2 species of caiman, river otters, pampa and marsh deer, and an estimated 350 bird species. 350!!! Talk about biodiversity!

We arrived in Mercedes too late to catch the daily departure for Colonia Carlos Pelligrini (a settlement within the park boundary) so had to spend the night in an overpriced divey hotel. It was pretty gross and I like to think I've gotten a bit desensitized to those things after 6 months of travel. Anyway, it was just one night and then we caught the bus (picture a school bus but with individual plastic seats instead of 2-person vinyl benches) for the bone-shattering 3 hour drive on back-country dirt roads to Pelligrini. A guy on the bus (not sure if he was the driver's assistant but he did stand up by the driver for the whole trip) told us where to get off so we could stop in at the tourist information center. The attendants didn't really speak English but we managed to get a map and a few suggestions of decent budget accommodations (hospedaje). Just walking the few hundred meters to the first place we saw half a dozen different birds, including the striking red-crested cardinal with it's bright poppy-colored head and gray and white body. Quite a contrast to the rust colored dirt and green foliage.

Birds of Esteros del Ibera.

For the remainder of the afternoon we explored the sparsely populated town and soaked up the tranquility of the natural surroundings (except for when a dirt/motorbike growled past, disturbing the peace). Nice for a change after spending quite a while in urban areas. We ate dinner at a little comedor (small, family run restaurant) and retired fairly early to prepare for our boat tour of Lake Ibera the next morning. We arrived at the launch site to join a swarm of noisy Argentinian families already congregated at the dock. At that moment we knew we would only see a small fraction of the 350 bird species in the park. The tour was pretty good even though we got stuck in a boat with 9 other people including 3 kids (noisy vacationers from Buenos Aires) and we saw tons of caimans, several shore and waterbirds, capybara, and even an elusive marsh deer. There was also a boa constrictor sunning itself on the rocks near the park office!



Capybara and some Southern Screamers (yes, that is their name - I looked it up)

Marsh deer.
 Later in the afternoon we walked back to the park office and meandered through the various trails along the lake and the surrounding marshy areas. We saw about a hundred capybara but not much else besides some shorebirds. Oh and a few howler monkeys that we probably wouldn't have spotted if there wasn't a group ahead of us with what seemed to be a private guide. It was still great to be out in nature and enjoying some fresh air. We watched the sunset from a spot on the land bridge connecting the park office to Pelligrini and then headed back to seek out transportation to our next destination - Posadas.

Getting up close with the cabybara.

Lago Ibera.
Howler monkey female.

Baby deer. I think it may be a pampas deer (different than the marsh deer we saw during the boat tour).

There are no buses from Pelligrini to Posadas but we'd read that it's possible to arrange a private transfer in a 4x4 vehicle. When we'd arrived we'd left our name at the info center hoping to connect with a couple more travelers looking to share the (rather costly) ride to Posadas. Unfortunately we didn't have luck forming a group but we decided to make arrangements for ourselves anyway since the alternative was to wait until Monday (no bus on Sunday) and catch a 4 am bus back to Mercedes followed by 6 more hours of bus travel. The 4x4 would take about 3 hours but cost CDN$250.

The info center directed us to the residence of Juan Fracalossi and we went there to inquire about a ride. There was a group of young people sitting outside the house and we asked them but they shook their heads and said a bunch of stuff we didn't understand. We asked if it was possible tomorrow and they still said no so we asked if there was anyone else who might go to Posadas. They told us to walk 2 blocks back in the direction of our hospedaje so we set out that way feeling very confused about why we'd been turned away from Juan's house (there was even a sign right out front reading "AQUI - Transfers". We got 2 blocks away and were consulting our map in front of the empty lot when a motorbike came up from behind and cut in front of us. The driver said something about us looking for transfers to Posadas and we confirmed our interest to which he replied a string of words that we couldn't comprehend. He tried again, still not breaking through, and then he gestured to the map, which I handed to him. He pointed at the name "Juan Fracalossi" and back at himself. Click. Ohhhhhhhh. The challenge of introductions overcome, we managed to arrange for a ride the following day and bid farewell to Juan, still baffled as to why the group in front of his house had been so unhelpful and dismissive.

Despite going to a different comedor for dinner we were offered basically the exact same menu options as at the place we'd eaten the night before. Suddenly the comment I'd read frequently about the "lack of dining options" in Pelligrini made perfect sense. We'd seen lots of little restaurants so we'd initially figured those comments were outdated. Turned out they were referring to the lack of variety in the menus not the lack of eating establishments in the colony. Good thing we don't mind milanesa (fried breaded beef cutlet) or ravioli with salsa de carne (meat sauce).

The next morning Juan appeared outside our window at 10:30 as we were packing up our things and asked if we wanted to leave at 11 instead of noon. We said okay and he disappeared on his motorbike. A little after 11 he returned with a 4x4 and another guy who it turned out would be our driver. We loaded up and set out on another bumpy dirt road, making awkward small talk in our limited Spanish. Once our vocabulary was exhausted the driver popped in a cd. As I'd predicted the night before, we were forced to listen to the same latin american pop hits that seem to follow us everywhere ad nauseam. Over the next hour I heard the one song that I've developed a specific hatred of 4 times. Then our 4x4 broke down. Yep. We hit a bump and there was a loud knocking clunk from beneath the front passenger wheel-well. We stopped and the boys got out to inspect things, concluding that the damage was sufficient to require returning to Pelligrini. So we did. Painstakingly slowly so as not to cause more damage or render the vehicle undriveable. And I heard that song another 2 or 3 times.

We returned to Juan's house and he rolled up on his motorcycle a few minutes later, blinking in befuddlement until the driver explained what had happened. Juan got on his phone immediately and made alternate arrangements for us to get to Posadas. Meanwhile we went for a quick lunch to make the most of our unexpected return to Pelligrini. Mmm, more milanesa. Then we were on our way again and this time we had no trouble making it to Posadas.

Our new driver recommended a hospedaje near the bus terminal and we decided to stay there to save some money, figuring that places in the center would be more expensive. It wasn't a bad accommodation but very basic. And we were a little concerned that we'd made a mistake staying so far out when our main objective in Posadas was to obtain a visa for Paraguay and the consulate was in the center. Our driver had mentioned that public transportation to the center was available along the main road between us and the bus terminal so we ventured over that way, found the bus stop and a lady waiting there confirmed that there were buses to the center. We managed to get on the correct bus but had no idea where to get off because we didn't have a map of the city. Eventually the bus reached the end of its route and us two were the only dummies still on the bus. The driver and his friend asked where we wanted to go and when we said "the plaza" they asked, "which one?" We didn't even realize there was more than one! I mean, most cities have multiple plazas but there is a clear principle plaza. Apparently Posadas has two that more or less fit this bill. Nevertheless, they pointed us in the direction of one and it turned out to be where we'd wanted to go.

We strolled around a bit and stopped into a few hotels to see what it would cost to stay closer to the center. Way too expensive. Outrageously expensive! Part of the problem is that Argentinians are currently on their winter holidays so everywhere is busy and the prices go up in high season.

The next morning we bused back to the center and paid a visit to the Paraguayan Consulate to find out exactly what we'd need in order to apply for a visa. As we'd feared, we needed to show proof of onward travel - either out of Paraguay or a flight home in the future, neither of which we had. The agent told us we could go to a travel agency around the block and buy bus tickets out of Paraguay so we decided to try that. We first made a stop at a kiosk (what they call small convenience stores in Argentina) to get passport photos taken and make copies of all the required documents and credit cards. Then we stopped into the travel agency and explained what we wanted only to be told it wasn't possible to buy a ticket from a Paraguayan city to Argentina. We'd have to go to Paraguay to do that. Hmm. Paradox? When we explained why we needed the ticket they were sympathetic but still couldn't help us other than to suggest we just pop across the border without a visa and buy the bus ticket. Evidently people do it all the time and just pay the border crossing guard to let them pass. Hmm. Shady? We thanked them for their "help" and decided we'd probably be better off booking our flight home as proof of future onward travel.

The next step was to procure the cash for the visa processing fee - US$65. The first ATM we tried didn't let us withdraw US cash. Same with the second, third, fourth and fifth..... We decided to try a money changer. As soon as we told him what we wanted he exclaimed that it was not possible and cited a government ban on the "sale" of US$. What? Everywhere?, we asked. Yes. What??!?!

We returned to the Paraguayan Consulate and told the agent about our two big problems in meeting the application requirements. He wasn't too sympathetic about the difficulty in getting proof of onward travel, simply suggesting that we book flights somewhere and present a copy of the e-ticket. The issue with getting US$ was something he agreed was a major problem but, no, they didn't accept Paraguayan or Argentinian currency. Ridiculous! He offered to ask his boss whether he could accept Argentinian pesos (at a terrible exchange rate; would've cost us the equivalent of about US$110 each) but we were beginning to lean towards scrapping the whole idea. Our main reason for wanting to visit Paraguay was just to visit Paraguay; there weren't any major attractions that we'd identified, it was just an alternate route to Iguazu and a chance to experience a less-visited South American country.

We decided to try one last thing - brave the enormous lineup at the bank and see if we could get US$ from an in-person interaction. Unfortunately, by the time we returned to the center it was a few minutes after 1 pm and the banks were closed for the day. Gah!

Frustrated, we parked ourselves in a cafe to regroup and make some decisions. Chris also found some information about the scarcity of US$ resulting from the new Argentinian President's agenda to decrease the country's dependence on "greenbacks" and force them to start relying on their own currency again, despite concerns about the stability of its value. (click here to read article) Her government introduced a new law that makes it nearly impossible for Argentinians (and us) to obtain US$. Wonderful. I mean, fair enough for them. But major inconvenience for us!

Over coffee and lunch we gave it some serious thought and decided to forego a trip to Paraguay. It wasn't high on our list of places to visit - we were only planning to be there for a week or so - and the hassle to get there was making it feel not worth it. We would've had to spend at least one more day in Posadas to see whether we could get US$ from a bank and then another day or more while we waited for the visa to get processed. We also would've had to make a decision about flights home or somewhere within south america to meet the proof of onward travel requirement. So, alas, Paraguay was scratched off our list.

We walked down to the river that afternoon and gazed across the expanse of the Rio Parana at the country we would not get to visit (the Paraguayan city of Encarnacion is right across from Posadas). Dejected as we felt there was still a shimmer of bright side to this situation - it meant we would visit the incredible Iguazu Falls much sooner than planned. On the flipside, it also meant we would have to work on obtaining Brazilian visas much sooner than planned.... But those will both be chapters in a future blog....

Monday, 9 July 2012

A taste of Chile and Argentina: The Atacama Desert and Salta to Tucuman

Oh dear it's been a while since my last update. We've been on the move a lot more than usual but I've also been procrastinating a tad. Time to catch up!

I left off last time describing the fiasco that brought us into Chile from Bolivia. Despite the ridiculous delay at the border, the drive to Calama was quite beautiful. More of the same colorful mountains and vast open plateaus of the altiplano with the odd smattering of snow sparkling in the brilliant (but not warm) sunshine. Finally we arrived in Calama, wide-eyed, appreciating in the stark contrast between this bustling metropolis and the desolate region from whence we'd come. Unfortunately, the resurgence of civilization brought with it higher prices and difficulty finding accommodations in the budget category. We wandered into several hotels that turned us away on account of having zero vacancy. Part of the reason for this is the nearby copper mine; transient workers book up rooms for months at a time, especially the most economical options. Hmmm, sounds like someplace I know in northern Alberta... We finally found twin beds at a small hostel that had annexed a building down the street. Only 27,000 pesos for the night! That works out to about $57 Canadian. Might not seem very expensive considering hotel rates at home but that's double what we've been paying for the majority of our trip. So, relatively expensive. And this pad didn't have a private bathroom or much of anything with respect to amenities. (Side note: it's pretty awesome holding a wad of $10,000 and $20,000 bills in your hand even if they're only worth 1/500th in CDN$. It's fun ordering thousands of dollars worth of food too.)

That evening, while meandering around the center of town in search of a place for dinner we encountered a sushi restaurant. The first sushi place we'd seen since Lima. How could I deny Chris his favorite food after having been deprived for so long? I, on the other hand, have nearly constant access to my favorite food. Pizza is ubiquitous throughout South America. Of course it varies in quality and we've only had a few notable ones (mmm Bodega 138 in Cuzco), but whenever I have a hankering for a slice I never have to walk more than a block before reaching a pizza joint. Even in tiny Bolivian towns! Sushi hasn't quite become all the rage here yet. Maybe that's a good thing considering the stringent hygiene and storage requirements for sushi. Hygiene hasn't quite become all the rage in South America either.... Anyway, we had sushi in Calama. And it was pretty good. Chris was very happy.

Our reason for travelling to Calama was to visit the Chuquicamata Copper and Molybdenum Mine - the world's largest (but only second deepest, aww damn you Utah) open-pit mine - and it almost didn't happen. We went to the city tourist office to inquire about the tour and were told that all the spaces were filled for that day and the next tour wasn't until Monday (which would've meant spending 2 more expensive nights in Calama). Picking up on our not so subtle disappointment, the very nice lady at the info desk suggested that we come back at the tour's departure time and see if any spaces had opened up. She thought these two French people might not show up. Must've seemed flakey. They were probably just displaying the standard level of French aloofness that she took as being noncommittal. (Wow, these are important details...) So, we went for lunch and when we came back the very nice lady said there was room for us after all and put us in a taxi to the mine's visitors' office in another part of the city.

After donning the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) - fluorescent orange vests and hardhats - we boarded the fanciest bus we've seen in 6 months of travelling and left the city for the abandoned town of Chuquicamata. All the infrastructure remains, including housing, restaurants, theaters, and parks but the town's inhabitants were evicted partly because of environmental concerns due to the nearby mine and partly to make room for the mine's expansion. Following a brief information session held in an old bookstore converted to mining museum we were transported into the mine site to a viewing platform overlooking the pit. It was incredible. Chris's enginerd side was thoroughly impressed but even a layperson like myself was amazed by the sheer magnitude of the operation. And I've been behind the scenes of the Alberta oil sands operations! A lot of the machinery is similar. Similar scale for sure.

Chris looking rather enginerdy during our visit to the Chuquicamata copper mine near Calama, Chile.
Though probably not as enthralled as Chris, I was definitely more interested in the mine than this picture portrays.
Way across the pit are the massive haul trucks and diggers, comparable to those used to mine the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta. They look tiny! That's how big the mine is.
For scale reference, our coach bus and an approaching haul truck.

On the bus ride back to Calama there was one chick that kept hounding the guide with questions in Spanish, shoving a hand-held recorder in her face and furiously scribbling notes. I couldn't fully understand the discussion but her whole attitude oozed some sort of environmentalist agenda and she kept interrupting the guide in an argumentative way. Not that I have a problem with asking environmental questions. But I felt bad for the guide who clearly didn't have the details the chick was looking for but still suffered a sort of martyrdom on behalf of the company.

We made it back to Calama in time to catch a bus out to our next destination - San Pedro,  an oasis town smack in the midst of the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert (is it just me or do we seem to visit a lot of extreme place? deepest this, driest that....). Average rainfall in the region is only 1 mm per year but it's reported that some areas have not had any rain in hundreds of years. Hundreds of years!! This extreme aridity coupled with the near absence of light pollution and radio signal interference (because almost no one lives there) make perfect conditions for astronomical observation. This was our main reason for visiting.

The town itself has a strange bohemian vibe, consisting mostly of white-washed adobe buildings that exist to support the growing tourism industry. Luxury accommodations costing several hundred dollars per night are interspersed with trendy restaurants, tour companies, and souvenir shops. It seems to be the cool place for young Chileans to go work, judging from the multitude of hipster-esque twenty-somethings running the town. Sort of like Banff or Jasper back home. But less Aussies. A notable idiosyncrasy of San Pedro is that there are no official bars - in fact, it's not permitted to serve patrons alcohol alone. Surprisingly, this doesn't mean you're forced to order food with your beer or wine. It means the establishment is forced to provide a snack if you just order drinks. I rather like this system. Free snacks! Although, I'm sure they recover costs by charging more for the drinks. Meh.

Chilean doppelgangers of Jill and Modest's cats.

We managed to find a reasonably priced hostel called Eden Atacamena with rooms built around a rather desiccated courtyard garden. The hostel was home to the doppelgangers of Jill and Modest's two cats back home (Chandler and Jasper). Hence, Chris adopted them immediately. And they adopted him in turn, offering him freshly killed (or not quite dead) mice and birds they caught. Lovely.

We ended up spending 5 nights in San Pedro. Not because we fancied it immensely. It was actually very cold and I was sort of anxious to move on to warmer (and cheaper) territory. The reason we stayed was because the one ATM in town was out of money when we arrived and wouldn't be filled until Monday at the earliest. We didn't have enough money to cover the cost of the hostel and buy bus tickets to get away without withdrawing more cash. So we had to wait and hope there would be cash after the weekend.

Highlights of our time in San Pedro included me getting food poisoning (okay, that wasn't really a highlight but it was a significant event, trust me), visiting one of the local space observation stations for some epic star gazing, and a particularly deplorable attempt to bike through the Valle de la Luna.

Our tour to S.P.A.C.E. (San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations - yah, talk about a great acronym!) was the true highlight. We were bused out to the site at about 9 pm, wearing as many layers as we could fit into and still be mobile knowing that we were about to spend 2+ hours in the freezing cold. The astronomer that lead our tour was amazingly well-spoken and engaging. Despite shivering for the latter 2/3 of the tour we really enjoyed his overview of the constellations and brief history of astronomy. We were able to look through more than half a dozen telescopes to see stars too faint to observe with the naked eye, star clusters, nebulae, and Saturn in all its ringed glory. I was also blown away by how visible the Milky Way was out there in the middle of nowhere. Even brighter and more densely populated with stars than when we'd seen it during our tour of the remote parts of the Southwest Bolivia.

Shot of the night sky and outlines of the telescopes we got to use during our tour at S.P.A.C.E.
The other major tourist attraction near San Pedro is the Valle de la Luna - an area of crazy rock formations that resemble a moonscape. There are also parts that have been compared to Mars and were actually used by NASA as a testing ground for some of their Mars landers and microbiological sampling instruments. We had the bright idea to rent bikes and cycle the 16 km road through the protected area instead of paying for a tour. First we did a short ride towards the river in search of a quebrada that was supposed to be really scenic and good for biking. We didn't have luck locating it but the river valley was quite pretty with all it's red rock walls.

We then set out for the Valle de la Luna as the sun was high in the sky and there was not so much as a tickle of a breeze. In short, we failed, barely making it past the park entrance before fatigue and major discomfort from the poor quality bikes resulted in us giving up and turning back. We did get a glimpse of what's left of an enormous sand dune that collapsed during an earthquake a few years back. Sad to miss out on what was probably a very picturesque natural landscape but we were truly suffering and the road went steeply uphill past where we took a break for lunch. Oh well. 

Some terrain just inside the park entrance to the Valle de la Luna.

The bumpy road that made for sore bottoms on our not-very-cushy bike seats.
Visible in the distance is Volcan Licancabur - we saw this peak from the other side in Bolivia at Laguna Verde!

View from our lunch spot and the place we gave up on the ride. 

Still recovering from food poisoning and now my butt and back are killing me! Life is tough.

We left San Pedro en route for Argentina after waiting on a dusty street with other bemused travelers for nearly an hour past the departure time noted on our tickets. The bus finally arrived and we were ushered onto it without any explanation for its tardiness. We got our Chilean exit stamps before leaving town - much faster process than our experience coming into Chile. The Argentinian border control took a bit longer but that was mainly because they couldn't get their fancy luggage scanner up and running so they had to start with manual searches. Still, far less painful than the last time we crossed a border and we were back on the road soon enough.

The drive from the border to Salta was unreal. Every time I think I couldn't be more blown away by the natural landscape we travel to or through another mind-blowing place. To reach Salta we had to descend more than a kilometer down from the altiplano to the subtropics. We spent nearly an hour on switchbacks coming down into a gorgeous valley with rainbow colored mountains, perfectly lit by the setting sun, bordered by ranches. Cows!!! I was already salivating thinking about the steaks I would soon consume. About halfway down the slope I noticed a strange sensation of stickiness on my skin and suddenly I realized what was causing it - humidity! Oh sweetness, we were back to a place with moisture!! And warmth!

After 9 hours on the bus we were famished so we decided we'd kick off our visit to Argentina with a parilla - basically barbecue. We found a restaurant near our hostel and had just settled in to examine the menu when Chris gasped and started laughing at something out the window. My first thought was, what? More doppelganger cats? Then, through the door came Colin and Michelle, the couple we'd shared a jeep with on our salt flats tour! Hah! What a splendid coincidence that we should cross paths with them again. We made plans to hang out the following day since they were just on their way to cook some dinner at their hostel.

Salta was a nice city with lots of colonial architecture and very modern buildings/stores as well. I treated myself to some luxury items such as a pumice stone and facial scrub - both of which I was in dire need of after too many days in the driest place on earth. We met up with Colin and Michelle to watch the Eurocup semifinal between Spain and Portugal in the afternoon and then went out for a few drinks while we waited for restaurants to open for dinner. We ate at a parilla recommended in our guide book and it was fantastic. We shared several types of grilled meat and sausages, throwing in a salad for good measure (salads are very basic in Argentina, typically consisting of just iceberg lettuce, white onion and tomato). The meat was amazing though. Chris even asserted that the tenderloin was the best steak he'd ever had and that's saying a lot when you come from Alberta.

Relishing the companionship, we didn't want the night to end. So we sought out another bar. Turns out that's more difficult to do in Argentina if you're looking before midnight... we found a little fast food restaurant and asked if they knew where we could find a bar. They told us they were a bar and in our tipsy state we decided to indulge them and took a seat in one of the booths. Turned out they had wine on the menu and it wasn't awful so we stayed a while before moving on to one last venue near the plaza to finish off another bottle of wine and end the night. It was great fun! We met up with Colin and Michelle the next day for lunch to exchange some photos from our salt flats tour and say goodbye before they boarded a bus to Mendoza. Aww it sure was nice to have friends again for a few days!

We didn't get up to much else despite staying in Salta for almost a week. We took the Teleferico (gondola) up a small mountain overlooking the city and wandered around for a few hours admiring the intricately designed artificial waterfalls and gardens. We also got scolded for sitting on a holy monument. Honestly, I didn't notice it was a giant cross until the guard made us get off. The base just looked like a good place to lean! We also enjoyed an Argentine barbecue put on by our hostel, which allowed us to make some more temporary friends. Oh! And I got a haircut! First one in about 4 months.

View from the top of the Teleferico overlooking Salta.

Fuzzy flowers.


As a side note, another pleasant thing about Salta was that you could drink the tap water. So convenient to not have to worry about picking up bottled water for a change!! Apparently we should be able to (safely) drink tap water throughout most of Argentina. Hurrah! One more side note - the school uniforms in Argentina are very strange. The most common are white button-up blazers that look exactly like lab coats! The first time we saw a school yard full of them I thought it was a special science school.... Then, on one of our bus rides we saw kids wearing uniforms that had decals of Bart Simpson dressed like a scientist sewn onto the back. And those were the official uniforms! What the what?

From Salta we went to Cafayate - one of Argentina's lesser-known wine regions, most notable for being the exclusive producer of torrontes, a delicious white wine. It also happens to be one of the highest wine producing regions in the world, located at more than 1600 m above sea level. We'd booked accommodations at a hostel that ended up being on the outskirts of town. The proprietor, Gironimo,a thirty-something Argentine sporting jeans, a flannel jacket and stylish goatee - sort of gaucho chiq I guess - picked us up from the bus stop in his utter piece of $hit car. Seriously, the thing sounded like a 1950s tractor, didn't require keys for the ignition, and the worn upholstery invoked a flashback to the couch I grew up with in the 80s. But Gironimo was incredibly friendly and welcoming. The hostel was alright, nice enough but looked like it had been destined for greater things and then got abandoned to the budget realm for whatever reason.

Being there in the dry season meant the vines were all dried up so it required a bit of imagination to feel like we were truly in wine country. That became a lot easier after a few glasses of wine though. We visited a few of the wineries that had bodegas in town and, once I learned the Spanish word for tasting (degustacion), enjoyed sampling their torrontes, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon. Our favorites were the wines of Nanni. Don't think we can get it at home, sadly.

Me in the vineyard at Domingo Hermanos.
We stopped in Tafi del Valle for one night en route to Tucuman. Our guide book described it as a popular getaway for Tucumenas and we were attracted by the possibility of biking towards Tucuman and stopping at some of the great swimming holes along the way. Once we arrived it was eminently clear that we wouldn't be participating in any outdoor activities that involved less than 3 layers of clothing. It was so cold!! Considering that this is their winter it wasn't nearly as bad as winter at home but it was definitely too cold (not to mention too dry) for swimming or even biking really. We also had a hard time finding a budget accommodation so that basically settled it that we'd only stay one night. Tafi is located in picturesque valley near a big lake and there are numerous acreages dotting the rolling hillsides. I bet it would be really nice there in summer. We did a short hike up the Cerro de la Cruz before catching a bus to Tucuman in the afternoon.

The drive to San Miguel de Tucuman involved coming down out of the mountains and it was clear there'd been a lot of landslides in the past few weeks. Crews were busily clearing debris from the road and there were several spots where the road was reduced to one narrow lane with a gaping ravine visible over the side of the tattered edge of what remained of the second lane. We also saw a massive bolder that had evidently fallen down the side of the mountain and was now perched precariously above a bend in the road. Eep! We made it to Tucuman without incident though.

Tucuman is one of the biggest cities in Argentina - number 5 if you don't include the megapolis of Buenos Aires where more than a third of all Argenines reside. It has a colorful colonial history and prides itself on being the location where important documents declaring Argentina's independence were drawn up and ratified in 1816. In fact, July 9 marks Argentina's Independence Day and we arrived on July 6, the Thursday before this important occasion. We were worried about whether we would find accommodations over the weekend after reading that celebrations in Tucuman are particularly intense due to the historical significance of the city and the nation's independence. We found a hostel barely within our budget range that had just one room for that night but couldn't guarantee the following 2 nights and definitely didn't have anything available on the Sunday (Independence Eve). The room was right behind the reception desk, adjacent to the front door. Ugh. We decided to suck it up and stay there at least for the one night and let fate (availability of the room for the following nights) decide whether we remained or moved on.

As fate would have it, the room ended up being available for 2 more nights. However, it turned out we were dead wrong about why the hostel was so busy. In fact, it had nothing at all to do with Independence Day. Nope. The hostel was fully booked by troupes of drag queens who'd come to Tucuman to participate in an annual Drag Queen competition. Yep. They were hilarious. At first.... We giggled watching them practice their dance routines over and over, put finishing touches on their outlandish costumes, and fuss over their hair and makeup. But the comical nature of the situation soon transformed to rage when the divas stayed up ALL night nattering, laughing, and clickity-clacking all over the tile-floored building in their 6-inch stilettos. Worst.Sleep.Ever. On this trip. We dragged ourselves out of bed, looking and feeling utterly like zombies and found several of the queens still up, looking pretty and perky as ever. Gah!

Anyway, that was really the only story worth telling about our time in Tucuman. And we don't even have any pictures!!! We didn't do much else besides figuring out plans for our next destinations, which mostly involved me struggling not to be as self-centered as the drag queens in demanding to be "somewhere not shitty and not on a bus" for my birthday this coming week.... We tried to do some clothes shopping but were foiled by the Argentine practice of afternoon siesta during which the city becomes a veritable ghost town and everything is closed for 4 hours or so. Furthermore, being the long weekend, absolutely nothing was open on the Sunday.

We boarded a 12 hour night bus to Resistencia and were actually exhausted enough to sleep for most of the ride. I suppose we should thank the drag queens for keeping us up the two nights before? hrrrmmm.... Tonight we will see what Independence Day celebrations transpire in another fairly large Argentine city. This morning there was a parade featuring marching bands, traditional costumes and dance, cowboys, and a line of backhoes and dumptrucks.... Interesting. Alright, it's 7:30 so the restaurants should be opening soon for dinner (apparently Argentina is made for night owls - dinner is usually at 10pm but you can find some places open earlier and the bars don't open until midnight - this explains the need for siestas).